A film review by Craig J. Koban January 8, 2016

JOY j
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½   

2015, PG-13, 124 mins.

 

Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano  /  Diane Ladd as Mimi  /  Virginia Madsen as Carrie  /  Robert De Niro as Rudy  /  Bradley Cooper as Neil Walker  /  Dascha Polanco as Jackie  /  Edgar Ramírez as Tony Miranne  /  Elisabeth Röhm as Peggy  /  Isabella Rossellini as Trudy

Written and directed by David O. Russell   Russell

JOY is very odd movie.  

Odd in the sense that David O. Russell directs it with an atypically indifferent and unsure hand.  Odd in the sense that it features an incredibly solid and authentic performance by a largely miscast (I’ll explain later) Jennifer Lawrence.  Odd in the sense that it’s a loosely fact based film that deals with a self-made millionaire that built her own financial empire out of a mop invention…and it never really seems wholeheartedly focused on her or her invention.  Russell previously made the fantastic period film AMERICAN HUSTLE and the dysfunctional family drama SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – all with Jennifer Lawrence - which left me excited to see yet another potentially dynamic team-up between the effectively proven director/actor tandem.  Alas, JOY feels somewhat unfinished and lacks perspective as a whole and doesn’t seem to find a manner of making all of its divergent parts gel cohesively together.

Of the film's positives I will say this: Jennifer Lawrence has an intuitive knack for rising well above any occasion and acting challenge and can elevate a film well beyond its problematic handling of the material.  She’s so genuine and heartfelt in JOY and confidently occupies nearly every frame of this film with a determined passion that most actresses can’t muster.  Yet, being in her mid-twenties, she seems kind of laughably miscast here, seeing as the real life figure that inspired this film – Joy Mangano – was pushing 40 when she struck gold with her patented Miracle Mop in the 1990’s.  JOY, much like many of Russell’s past films, is about well meaning misfits and societal rejects that desperately want another crack at life to achieve their own version of the American Dream.  The film is replete with the type of loveable oddballs that only Russell can conjure up, but his overall handling of the title’s character journey to self-actualization and success seems hesitant, even when harnessed by a crackerjack Lawrence.    

 

 

The film begins rather sloppily and takes seemingly forever for it to finally dive headfirst into what it really wants to be about.  Joy (Lawrence) has always been a keenly creative being, even though most of her fellow family members have always been dismissive of her unbridled ambition.  Her parents are proverbial basket cases.  The mother, Carrie (Virginia Madsen) is a reclusive drinker that spends her entire day watching soap operas (Russell frequently uses a framing device throughout the story featuring real life soap stars like Susan Lucci and Donna Mills that never really works as an ethereal commentary piece as well as he thinks it does).  The father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is so aggressively negative minded and grumpy that’s it’s a small-scale miracle that Joy wants to have anything to do with him.  Joy’s marriage is also on the rocks, seeing as her husband Tony (a very good Edgar Ramirez) is a failed singer that’s so destitute that he has to live in Joy’s basement…even after their divorce.  Joy’s work life is no better, seeing as she slums away at menial customer service jobs that are emotionally crushing her by the day.  Only Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) is a calm and soothing voice of compassionate support in her life.

While dealing with a fractured family life and marriage – not to mention crippling debt – Joy manages to have an epiphany one day and develops a working prototype for a special mop that can ring itself out and contains a removable head that can be washed and re-used, dubbed by her as “The Miracle Mop.”  Of course, trying to manufacture and sell the item is a constant uphill battle, but she secures some much needed capital from Rudy’s girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) in order to produce a solid working model and numerous others worthy of consumer purchase.  Joy even finds her product advertised on TV via a home shopping channel, run by an slick and pragmatic TV network executive (Bradley Cooper) that gives Joy a chance that she so desperately needs.  Unfortunately, a series of horrendous setbacks ensue, which may or may not derail Joy’s dreams altogether.

The one welcome change prevalent in JOY is that it represents a more stylistically muted film for Russell when one considers his past resume.  This is arguably a good thing, seeing as it allows the central and underlining story of Joy’s unlikely rise to fame and fortune to shine more.  The most memorable aspects of the film is the whole developmental process of the Miracle Mop and the incredibly convoluted struggles that Joy finds herself in to simply advertise and sell it.  Having money – and enough money – is one thing, but being able to produce mass quantities of the product – and on the relative cheap – on opposite sides of the country proves to be just a few of the many manufacturing woes that Joy has to deal with on a daily basis.  JOY finds a pulse of interest when it begins to hone in on the inherent stresses that inventers deal with and the legal and business loops that they must go through in order to hopefully break even.

Regrettably, my main problem with JOY is that Russell’s screenplay seems hyperactively all over the place.  There’s a lot of narrative terrain that the film must traverse through – Joy’s unstable upbringing, her combative and unruly parents, her failed relationships, her husband’s lack of occupational responsibility, etc. – and some of it sticks reasonably well, but far too much of the first half of JOY feels exhaustively expositional and has great difficulty settling into the type of film that it wants to be.  Russell is confused from the get-go as to whether he’s making yet another family melodrama or a biopic or an inspirational tale of a headstrong woman overcoming incredible personal odds.  Ultimately, I think that Russell is less compelled by Joy and her mop invention than he is with regrouping his actor alumni for another film, which ultimately leaves JOY feeling uneven and lacking in purpose.  For more or less, the film is mostly a star vehicle for Lawrence without much thoughtful commentary directed towards its very subject matter.

But, damn, Lawrence is the performance glue that holds the ramshackle pieces of this film together and makes it watchable.  She makes Joy a more deeply felt and multi-faceted character than perhaps what’s even written on the page.  There’s an inherent grittiness and sense of palpable resolve that Lawrence effortlessly exudes all through JOY that, with a lesser actress at the helm, would have made the film a real chore to experience.  She’s well matched with Cooper (her third film with both him and Russell), whose character could have easily been written as a dime-a-dozen and hateful network executive that only wishes to milk Joy and her product for whatever profit he can.  There’s a bit more layers to his character and his relationship with Joy than I was frankly expecting; little attempts are made in the screenplay for the two to become a romantic item, seeing as they are essentially business partners.  Cooper and Lawrence have a performance short hand and instant chemistry that lends itself well to the overall film.

Nevertheless, JOY never seems to pull itself successfully and completely together as much as I wanted it to.  That, and even some narrative devices are introduced and then strangely disappear later for no reason (like Diane Ladd’s voiceover track that chronicles her granddaughter’s rags to riches tale).  Russell is a deeply assured and disciplined director, but JOY unsatisfactorily emerges as a somewhat sloppy and undercooked effort from him.  I never sensed the director’s obsession with Joy as a character and her journey.  If anything, JOY feels like a half-hearted placeholder effort for Russell...and hopefully better things will come from him going forward.

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